If one didn’t know any better, Stage Fright might appear to be some sort of explicit homage to Brian De Palma, loosely held together by post-Scream clichés. At least, the litany of references to De Palma’s cinema would suggest as much: a roaming, tormented killer amid a musical production like William Finley from Phantom of the Paradise; a bucket of blood straight out of Carrie; and a power tool in desperate need of an outlet, à la Body Double. The similarities end here, however, as Jerome Sable’s debut feature couldn’t be further from De Palma’s delirious cinematic essays on vision and genre. Instead, Sable operates under the most requisite notions of intertextuality, blankly referencing and parodying far better, more exuberant films less as a form of revision or reflexivity than to engage a pop nihilism that has characterized numerous Scream imitators over the last two decades.
Stage Fright’s premise, an amalgam of bits and pieces from other horror films, masquerades as genre spoof. At the Center Stage Camp for Performing Arts, a gaggle of theater types gather to put on an annual summer production, and this year it’s Haunting of the Opera, which is significant for Camilla (Allie MacDonald), whose mother (Minnie Driver) was killed on stage during a performance of the show 10 years prior. From here, clichés and gags operate less for deconstruction than empty jabs at both theater and the horror genre. For example, Artie (Brandon Uranowitz), the play’s director, wants to set his new version in Japan and infuse the content with a kabuki-inspired context, to achieve “the very essence of post-structuralism in theater today.” The problem isn’t that Sable’s script is pseudo-intellectual, but the aimlessness with which his jokes and parody unfold, often pitched at a level that mistakes the tongue in cheek for meaningful genre engagement. Likewise, once the killer arrives, he stabs, saws, and rips through the campers with a ruthlessness that misunderstands horror’s social component; the bloodshed here is simply “fun,” but of the sort that divorces genre from its humanist resonances. No one in the film is an actual person. Instead, Sable is merely checking off archetypes and plodding along to the inevitable climax, when Camilla will come face to face with her mother’s killer.
The film’s only mildly interesting component is its music, which allows the campers to perform rather excruciating song-and-dance routines throughout, amid the carnage from the masked killer, who laments in a rock ballad that the campers “don’t know pain…now I’m gonna make you scream!” Yet, Sable is utterly incapable of locating even a semblance of pain within any of his characters, or their contemporary moment, since the film operates as retrograde pastiche, remaining wholly disinterested in how a genre’s form can be reworked.
Stage Fright remains in rehearsal throughout, working out any semblance of larger aims or significance as simply a gesture to cinematic or philosophical sophistication. As musical-horror, the film most bares resemblance to Slumber Party Massacre II, which features a killer with an electric guitar doubling as a power drill stalks a group of teenagers shacked up for the weekend, the climax set to Sterling E. Smith’s “Can’t Stop (Lovin’ You),” while the killer runs around, spouting Freddy Krueger-esque one-liners. That film, however, at least had the good sense to omit unmasking a killer and going through the trite beats of explanation and motivations for the slayings. Stage Fright fails to manage even that feat, as the conclusion unveils rather no-brainer culprits and the clichés become merely a means of resolution, further mangling the signifiers and genre mash-ups, which finally implode into a heap of scorched, imperceptible intent.